the Big Questions
Interview with Charles Collier
Wealth in Families
, stresses the importance
of families asking what you call "the big questions."
What do you mean by that and how does it help resolve family
: I think asking
essential questions is a key to family cohesion. I call
it "the art of questions." When I ask parents
what they want for their children, they say: "I just
want them to be happy." Then I ask an important question:
"What will make them truly happy?" They typically
respond, "Being passionate about something."
There are things more important than money
in a family, but so often we act as if money is what matters
most. I would say that the most important things in a family
are a sense of purpose, meaning, and identity-and
that having those qualities is what will make your children
happy. So the question to ask becomes: "How can we
nurture the growth and development of our family members,
and what role does money play in their life journey?"
By discussing that question, financial tensions and family
differences may be resolved more harmoniously.
: Are there other
questions families need to ask themselves?
: Before families
can make effective decisions about money, they ought to
ask themselves a number of big questions, chief of which
are: "What is the meaning of our family's financial
wealth?," "What does our family want to preserve
besides our financial wealth?," and "What is
our family's purpose?"
: How do families
answer those questions?
: First, families
ought to understand that they have four dimensions to their
family's wealth (as developed by the faculty of the
Family Office Exchange Learning Academy):
has to do with talent, skills, and "calling."
Human capital needs to be nurtured and grown over a lifetime.
To do that, you can ask your children: "What are you
good at? What are your talents and gifts and how can we
invest in them?"
is about knowledge, communication, and managing
family differences and conflict. To foster the development
of intellectual capital, you can celebrate differences in
learning styles, encourage lifelong learning, and think
deliberately about family governance.
has to do with civic engagement, developing
bonds and networks to your community, and extending care
beyond your own family. To develop your family's social
capital, you need to ask: "How do we raise compassionate
children? How do we encourage our children to form and sustain
a commitment to the public good?"
is your money and other assets, such as stocks,
bonds, and real estate.
that the purpose of financial capital is to enhance the
other three dimensions of true family wealth. The real wealth
of your family is not financial. Financial wealth is simply
a tool to enhance the growth of every family member, no
matter what life journey they are on.
Would you say more about how asking the questions resolves
differences and promotes family harmony?
Just asking these fundamental questions is not enough. You
need to act on the answers. For example, you might ask your
son or daughter, "What is your passion?" and
"How can we invest in your talents and interests?"
If a career as a boat builder is not your family's
definition of success, yet that's what your son or
daughter wants to pursue, then what do you do? You need
to allow your children to dream their own dreams, but it's
may want to ask themselves, "In what ways are we using
money as a form of control?" I would say a key issue
in wealthy families is the inability to let go of their
children. For example, when a young person in their late
twenties rejects the family money, there is often an issue
around control. The individual may have the perception that
the parents are controlling him or her with money-and
the parents actually are! The issue is not really about
money-money is the tool for control. To resolve the
relational issue, parent and child have to reach out to
one another. Usually, it is a parent who needs to take the
first step by reflecting on his or her contribution to the
wealthy families tend to overprotect and rescue their children.
They often think money can "fix the problem."
For example, they or their lawyer will call the boarding
school headmaster to get their children out of trouble.
I like to remember what Albert Camus said: The purpose of
all that love is that they shall separate.
How might "the big questions" affect family
When you are deciding what to do with your financial resources,
if you start with the question, "What is the meaning
and purpose of our family's financial wealth?"
the decision process has the potential to enhance communication
and personal growth for the whole family. The process itself
holds within it the statement of what the family values.
For example, if a family decides to leave 90 percent of
its money to the family, 10 percent to tax, and nothing
to charity, just as important as the final decision is the
process that was used to reach it. Having that discussion
over time among family members holds enormous possibility
for growth and for clarifying the family's values,
as well as for enhancing everyone's human, intellectual,
and social capital. If the parents make the decision alone,
the children may feel disenfranchised-they may feel
as if their parents do not value their contribution, as
if they do not value them as people.
is the ultimate decision- how are you going to address
these questions? Engaging in these kinds of conversations
with your family over time forces you to think about your
values, to communicate, to resolve conflict, and to be lifelong
learners. It's not something you do in one weekend
retreat. The process itself is an incubator for the competencies
of the four capitals, including how the family will deal
with money in the next generation.
Do you do this in your own family?
I'm trying! In my family, something positive that
grew of this approach happened recently with my father.
He is 88 and has 10 grandchildren, and has sometimes shown
more preference to some of his grandchildren than others.
Because of family meetings we have had, my siblings and
I decided to tackle this unevenness. We convinced him to
e-mail all of his grandchildren and their spouses, offering
them $250 each to give to a cause they cared about. His
only request was that they call him and discuss what cause
they wanted to give to and why it is important to them.
was glad that we suggested this idea. He learned a great
deal about each of his grandchildren as individuals. He
was thrilled by their passions and the variety of their
interests. Also, this exercise was important in that he
made a statement to his grandchildren (independent of their
parents) that charitable giving is important. The grandchildren
all had a positive experience around giving. The amount
of money was not important; the process was.
It sounds as if you have had good results with family meetings.
Would you say more about them?
Because of positive experiences in my own family, I'm
a great advocate of family meetings. They send two wonderful
messages: You count, and you belong. This is a process that
takes time, but you can get noticeable effects fairly quickly.
You may struggle in the first meetings to get it right,
but it will get better over time. (See sidebar: Family Meeting
Tips.) Some family topics are so emotionally charged that
you need an outside facilitator. A facilitator will often
interview individual family members before a meeting. I
know of families who, with a capable outside facilitator,
worked through issues and, in six months, resolved serious
conflict and increased family cohesion. Of course, it entailed
a commitment of time and effort.
important to remember that enhancing family harmony is a
learning process-and it can take a lifetime. I like
to think of the learning curve. You start out at the bottom,
where you're in a state of "chaos." Then
you grow more competent as you go along. Eventually, you
may level out, and then you might start off in a direction
of learning something new, or of staying where you are and
going deeper into that learning. I like to ask families:
Where are you on the learning curve? Where is your family
on the learning curve? What are you called to do next? What
impact does your family want to have?
by Pamela Gerloff
Wealth in Families
(in single copies or in bulk) from Harvard University. To
order, call: 617-495-5040.
Planning: Letting Go
When transferring assets to the next generation, these
steps will help you release control and promote children's
financial competence and independence:
the money in flexible trusts.
children who are beneficiaries trusts, include
them as co-trustees.
about one of the trustees being someone outside
the family who act as a mentor.
the child a say in who the third trustee is.
for your son or daughter to have his or her own
fee-only financial planner (not the same as yours).
the leadership of the meeting among family members.
Sometimes you may need an outside facilitator.)
everyone input on the agenda.
regularly; for example, at least once a year as
an extended family, and more often with committees
(such as a family foundation meeting).
your first family meeting by talking about family
stories, traditions, rituals, or history, before
tackling more sensitive issues, such as financial
wealth and family philanthropy.
© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved